CD-ROMs could transform the buying experience

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 08/90 item 01 - scanned

Have you tried to buy a car recently? If you have, you'll remember what an absolute nightmare it is. I recently got sucked in to helping a friend with his search for a vehicle which would both suit him and match his new status following promotion. His needs were fairly simple - something ecologically sound, comfortable, easy to drive and 'sexy'. The company needed something which would be appropriate to his new status as a director.

My friend rather fancied a Volvo 480, but wanted to be sure he wasn't missing something better. Choosing the right car involved several nights ploughing through car magazines reading reviews, complaints, summaries of features and studying advertisements. This brought him down to a shortlist of acceptable makes - Volvo, Saab, BMW, Mercedes, Rover and, at a push, Honda. He wasn't too happy about a Japanese name "no status", he told me.

Then he had to visit all the dealers in his area who handled these different cars. It took the best part of a day just running around collecting brochures. These had to be read and their contents analysed. Models had to be compared and prices of extras taken into account. This rather long-winded and very tiresome process produced a shortlist of cars roughly within the same price bracket. All that remained was to see what the vehicles actually looked like in real life. We were very aware of the difference a clever camera angle could make to the photographs in the brochures. There followed five hours of trundling round showrooms sitting in cars, and going for test drives. Finally, the decision was made - he ordered the very Volvo that he fancied in the first place.

From this experience I have concluded that choosing a car is principally a subjective, emotional process. The decision of which car to buy is probably made before all the brochure browsing, test driving and magazine reading. What car dealers need is a way of helping people rationalise their decision more quickly. If the Volvo dealer had had a CD-ROM player in his showroom with a disk containing details of its own and all the competitive cars, my friend would have been able to browse through this, find instant justifications for his choice and immediately place an order.

The manufacturer's and dealer's information on the CD-ROM would have to be objective and fair. They could stick in car specifications, prices, photographs and so on while magazines could contribute their reviews and comparison tables. The disks could be organised into categories such as, 'Sports Cars: 12,000 to 18,000,' and so on. Someone who fancies a particular car could sit down at the player, find the car of their choice, study the form and make the comparisons. A bit of intelligence in the player would be nice, so ' that comparative tables of features and prices could be built for the user 'on the fly'.

Such an installation might give the buyer other ideas of course but, if my earlier contention is correct, it will simply accelerate the justification process. The benefit to the buyer is obvious. Instead of a couple of days of rummaging through magazines, brochures and trundling round different dealerships, all the key information could be gleaned and compared in half an hour or so. The dealers would benefit because they don't have to spend the first ten minutes answering all sorts of basic questions. By the time the buyer is sitting in front of them they'll know what they want and why they prefer it to all the competition. Sales in these circumstances should be an absolute pushover.

Having come to this conclusion about buying cars, I then wondered whether the process of buying a car and a computer system could be handled in a similar way. A computer system hardware, software, add-on, support, maintenance etc. adds up to a far more complex decision than buying a car. The choice is likely to be a lot more objective. Nevertheless, the computer reseller and the prospective buyer would both benefit in similar ways if a passive sales person, like the CD-ROM player, could be the first point of call for a buyer. The machine could lead the customer into the correct range of products by asking whether their company forces them to make choices between particular brands, by asking whether the plan is for standalone or workgroup computing, by finding out what application areas are of interest, and so on.

Eventually the user can be presented, like the car buyer, with the roughly equivalent options. Pictures of the machines can be shown, and extracts from the applications can give an idea of what each is like in use. Just like the car system, both buyers and sales staff will love such a system. And newcomers to computers would have an added benefit - they could avoid making utter fools of themselves during their first visit to the dealer.